A decade ago, if you asked a gamer what the best video game ever made was, some of the most popular answers would be Super Mario Brothers, Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, and Ocarina of Time. These still frequent many lists on the web of the best video games of all time, but what’s really notable is that they were all made by Japanese companies. For many years, the Western game industry failed to make a significant impact on the Japanese market, whereas Japanese companies had success in both markets. But now it appears that Japanese people are picking up more Western titles than ever before, and perhaps Japan’s games are not as acclaimed as they used to be.
Early Winners, Recent Losers
The 1990’s an early 2000’s were pretty much dominated by Japanese developers. According to Gaming Steve, out of the top 100 best-selling games of 2005 in Japan, only one title was made in America. But gradually, things changed. As Post Bubble Culture reports:
[In the mid 2000’s] Japan saw for the first time a console that was developed by a non-Japanese source and a technology giant in its own right: Microsoft. It brought with it an influx of international third party franchises that pushed the boundaries of game creation both in terms of gameplay and, even more importantly, finances.
Grand Theft Auto IV, created by the United Kingdom’s Rockstar, managed to set a Guinness World Record for the highest video game production cost topping at $100 million dollars and crushing the $70 million record held by Japan’s Sega Corporation for the development of Shenmue. It ended up making over $500 million. That number is just child’s play though compared to the American produced Call of Duty: Black Ops, who as of 2011, has become the best-selling video game in history, making over $1 billion in sales2.
Some of the big franchises in Japan are still basically unknown in the West. For example, the hugely popular “Dragon Quest” game is practically unknown outside of Japan. More recent examples of titles that have made little impact in North America and Europe are Sony’s “White Knight Chronicles” and Capcom’s “Monster Hunter.”
In an interview at the 2010 Tokyo Game Show, Keiji Inafune — who heads research and development at Capcom — said “I look around Tokyo Games Show, and everyone’s making awful games. Japan is at least five years behind. It’s like we’re still making games for the last generation of game consoles. Capcom is barely keeping up.” This echoes the words of another Japanese developer, Yoshiki Okamoto, who said in 2008 that it’s almost too late to catch up to the West. He said that Western developers spend 5 to 10 years on their games, and are therefore making much more advanced titles.
So it’s hard to say whether Japan is simply losing its edge, or Western games are just getting that much better, or a combination of the two. One thing Japan may always have going for it is the type of distinctly Japanese games, such as visual novels, and J-RPGs. But it seems like even giants like Final Fantasy — probably the best-known RPG series in the world — are losing popularity, with such recent bombs as the FFXIV, receiving a measly 49 out of 100 on metacritic.
A Change in Popularity
When around 50 major players in the Japanese video game industry were asked to divulge their favorite games of 2010, the most popular games named were clearly “Red Dead Redemption” and “Heavy Rain” — both of which are Western titles. And when Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida had the recent PlayStation Vita ready for people to order, he was surprised to see the most popular pre-orders. Western games like “Hot Shots Golf” (or “Everybody’s Golf” in Japan) and “Unchartered: Golden Abyss” were the two most pre-ordered games in Japan, leading Yoshida to say that he believes there is a new shift in the attitude of Japanese people playing Western games. He said:
Japanese people traditionally have a strong local preference, particularly with the Manga style look of characters that they love. But as technology and presentation advances in games like Uncharted and Call of Duty, they are rightly seeing their quality.
Yoshida was also glad that they spent a lot of money to get Harrison Ford to play Uncharted on a commercial that airs in Japan. Every time I see this on TV, I always wonder if it really makes anyone want to play the game — frankly, it makes my cringe a little (though the 7-minute video of him playing is less forced). But Yoshida believes that Ford probably helped. The commercial is below. The word “sugee” at the end is a rough way of saying “awesome” in Japanese.
First-person-shooters — and generally, games that center around gunplay — have not been particularly popular in Japan, so to see “Call of Duty” so popular may indeed be indicative of change. Soon, we may even see an increase in games utilizing that great American value that characterizes the best Western RPGs today: Freedom. If Japanese developers try to learn from winning formulas such as Bethesda’s “Skyrim” (which is where the title picture is from), it might change the landscape of the Japanese gaming industry, because — believe me — Japan is big on roleplaying. But it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, if at all; JRPGs are still the standard in Japan, and there are still some highly acclaimed titles being produced today.
The Bottom Line
Of course, Japanese developers are not out of the game yet (no pun intended), and Nintendo has (quite surprisingly, in my opinion) stayed on top for decades, with no signs of slowing down. But it looks like Japanese gamers are warming up to more Western titles, and they’re welcoming the import of such foreign popular culture.